Poor teaching involves far more than an inappropriate match between the school's curriculum and the students' needs. It also involves the kind of expectations that the teacher communicates to students, the teacher's ability to deal with special needs in the classroom, his or her knowledge of normal child development, sensitivity to students' different learning and behavioral styles, and understanding that when English is the child's second language, conversational fluency doesn't equate to academic language proficiency. Moreover, when teachers do not personalize instruction to accommodate individual differences, the number of children identified as LD increases.
Poor teaching not only aggravates existing learning problems, but it can also increase the number of children erroneously identified as learning disabled. This can happen when some children fall behind because they haven't had the right learning opportunities. The discrepancy between their intellectual ability and achievement is really a pseudodiscrepancy that wouldn't have occurred if teaching had been personalized and effective. Researchers who are demonstrating that instruction helps establish and strengthen specific neural networks point out that poor instruction leaves a child without the necessary neural substrate to support academic progress.
The poor showing of our schoolchildren on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests is an indictment of the overall quality of education in the United States. When 38 percent of fourth graders read below a "basic" comprehension level, and only 23 percent score at or above a "proficient level" in writing, something is very wrong. The data are as grim for eighth and twelfth graders in this national assessment program, with 25 to 30 percent reading below grade level. Almost one-third of seniors lack a basic grasp of the structure and operations of American government. More than half of white twelfth graders can read a complicated text, but fewer than 20 to 25 percent of Hispanic and African American students can do so. In math, 1 in 10 white seniors, but only 1 in 30 Hispanic and 1 in 100 African American seniors can easily solve an elementary algebra problem. Only 28 percent of high school seniors find their schoolwork "often or always meaningful," and only 21 percent characterize their courses as "quite or very interesting." Only 39 percent of seniors feel that their school learning will be "quite or very important" in later life.
Given the large percentage of children who are functioning below grade level and unmotivated by the curriculum, many educators and politicians are focusing on the inadequacies of teachers' skills and the teaching environment, especially the resource inequities and lowered expectations in poorer schools. As a result, some researchers recommend that we eliminate the term "learning disabilities" in favor of teaching disabilities. Mancele's sad story illustrates the long-term intensive intervention needed by many individuals with LD, and the lost potential when appropriate intervention isn't available or offered.
Clearly the problem and the solution is not in the child alone. If students are to change, it is largely because teachers and parents have been willing to make changes in the curriculum, school, and home environments that promote learning. Indeed, the story of learning disabilities is full of parents and teachers who refused to accept the status quo, believed in their children, and fought long and hard to fix the schools so their students would succeed.
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